Iraq + 2 more

Press conference on children in Iraq

"The situation has deteriorated very significantly in the last 18 months for children [in Iraq], and it continues to worsen," Daniel Toole, Acting Deputy Executive Director and Director of Emergency Programmes for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) told reporters today at a Headquarters press conference.

An estimated 4 million people -- equalling the population of Ireland -- had been displaced because of violence, half of whom were children, he said.

UNICEF's decision to launch its "immediate needs" report for funding this morning in Jordan with Queen Rania, rather than at the press conference, was precipitated in part by the importance UNICEF had placed on engaging the Jordanian royal family and the Government, and on mobilizing the region.

Recounting successes he witnessed during his recent trip to Irbil, he highlighted the massive door-to-door campaign to immunize children in the city and its surrounding areas against measles, mumps and rubella. The Government, UNICEF and the World Health Organization had, together, immunized 3.6 million children -- a success in any country, but a "tremendous achievement" in a violence-torn country like Iraq. Measles was one of the biggest killers during emergencies, particularly among malnourished children.

He also was excited about the potential for additional activities in northern Iraq, including strengthening the Government's capacity to respond to Iraqis who had fled from the South to the North, and providing assistance to those still in the South.

However, "the vulnerability of children is clearly in evidence," he cautioned, recounting how bomb attacks in Irbil just days after his visit had destroyed the image of "relative peace" in the North. The spiral of violence was creating chaos for children, and one of UNICEF's greatest concerns was the lack of access to clean water. Two thirds of Iraqi children lacked access, a situation that increased their risk of diarrhea, dehydration and death. The first cases of cholera also had been recorded, signalling a "gigantic red flag".

Furthermore, he said, school attendance had plummeted from 75 per cent two years ago to just 30 per cent today, as parents remained fearful of sending their children to school and teachers remained in extremely short supply. The "brain drain" of qualified people for those positions only worsened the picture.

UNICEF could not solve such dilemmas alone, he added, highlighting a need for an end to the violence and increased support. Jordan and Syria had done a tremendous job of welcoming Iraqi refugees as guests and agreeing to help with primary school education and health.

He pointed out to say that UNICEF had maintained its presence in Iraq, and credited its 20 Iraqi staff members, 200 monitors and rapid response system with ensuring consistent services. Last year alone, the Fund spent $57 million transporting water, improving sanitation in schools and providing nutrition supplements and medical supplies.

Today, UNICEF was requesting $42 million from donors to cover basic requirements for the next six months, as its internal reserves were "totally inadequate to the problems at hand." That amount was in line with appeals issued by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and others. UNICEF already had issued almost $3 million in internal reserves to launch its operations in Iraq and would this week release another $7 million. With those funds, UNICEF had rehabilitated water supply networks for 3.4 million people, provided basic goods for 500,000 people various cities and undertaken immunization campaigns, among other initiatives.

Taking a question on whether Iraqi children were better off today than a few years ago, when UNICEF suggested that 500,000 Iraqi children had died because of international sanctions, he said Iraqi children certainly were not better off today than two years ago, recalling again that large numbers of malnourished, non-vaccinated and uneducated children remained in Iraq. Furthermore, displacement put a huge burden on families, many of which were often headed by women who were trying to hold their families together during an extremely difficult time.

Asked about whether those issues had been given attention by either the Iraqi or United States Governments, he responded that UNICEF had spoken with both Governments. Additionally, he had recently attended a conference in Geneva that addressed the humanitarian situation in Iraq and met with the Government in Northern Iraq, which was examining how to address the needs of children who had been educated in Arabic in the south, but now lived in an area where school was taught in Kurdish. UNICEF had been in talks with the United States Government about supporting education for Iraqi refugee children in Jordan.

Asked about people facing problems leaving Iraq and entering surrounding countries, he responded that there had been issues of formality and difficulty, both leaving Iraq and also crossing the borders of neighbouring countries, including in Jordan. UNICEF had conducted long discussions with the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Education about providing additional support to the Jordanian Ministry of Education, so that it could respond to the numbers of refugees. Both Syria and Jordan have expressed their need for assistance, and that was the importance of Queen Rania launching the report this morning.

On how UNICEF's appeal fit into a broader United Nations context and whether any of the $42 million had been committed, he responded that the Fund had begun conversations with donors to ensure funds arrived quickly, noting that it had conduced more advanced discussions with the United States on support for education in Jordan. Inside Iraq, the United Nations country team had pulled together a strategic plan, including a humanitarian plan. However, it did not yet have everything in place for a "One UN" appeal. UNICEF received all of its support from voluntary donations, and about 30 per cent of its support from the general public. If the United Nations team decided, as a whole team, to announce a consolidated appeal, UNICEF would be part of that appeal.

On the mechanics of that appeal, he said UNICEF had 37 national committees. People generally responded to UNICEF appeals, he continued, highlighting that two thirds of the funds raised to support victims of the Asian tsunami came from the general public. Taking another question on whether the Government of Iraq contributed to UNICEF finances, he responded that he did not have a breakdown of all finances and would have to check on that. Inside Iraq, he said one issue raised by the Minister of Education was how to deal with the different types of requirements in the country. He also said the Iraqi Red Crescent had been a key partner.

On the subject of American cooperation and whether UNICEF was trusted, he said, indeed, people knew UNICEF. He had suggested to teams on the ground to use more stickers on medicines supplied in order to increase trust and ensure public understanding that it was, indeed, the United Nations that was providing support. On cooperation with the United States, he said that was primarily logistical.

As to whether there was evidence of the use of child soldiers in Iraq, he responded that UNICEF did not have hard evidence. There was no system for monitoring that phenomenon in Iraq because, historically, it had not been an issue in the country. However, when children were displaced, they were often approached by others for purposes of labour or use as child soldiers. The fact that the conflict in Iraq had created such dissension in the region meant that it remained a tempting option for children who were angry and who had seen their houses and villages destroyed.

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